Gravel gardens are far more than just a bunch of rocks

Erin Schanen


You might be shocked to hear this, but gardening columns don’t typically make waves. They may be taken note of, occasionally commented on or even clipped for future reference, which is perhaps the highest calling for such a column, but rarely do they really get people talking.

 Which is why I took note when Margaret Roach’s recent column in the New York Times on gravel gardens quickly became a favorite topic among gardeners. And I have no doubt as to the appeal — a gorgeous garden with very little long-term maintenance.

Two key figures in Roach’s column are some of Wisconsin’s most notable gardeners. Plantsman and designer Roy Diblik, who has designed gardens at the Art Institute of Chicago and Shedd Aquarium, has been experimenting with a gravel garden at his nursery, Northwind Perennial Farm, in Burlington, which you can visit when the nursery is open.

Jeff Epping, director of horticulture at Madison’s Olbrich Botanical Gardens has been making gravel gardens since 2009 and recently ripped out his front yard to create one there.

To understand the attraction of gravel gardens, you must first dispel whatever notion you have of them, which probably resembles something you might see in a Las Vegas back yard. Gravel is not the feature but rather the medium in which the highlights of the garden — plants — thrive.

Epping made his front garden by first removing 6 inches or so of topsoil, which ensured that the final level of the garden was even with the street curb. Then he brought in truckloads of washed granite rock chips — limestone and sandstone are to be avoided — to fill in the entire area to a depth of 5 inches. That number is key, Diblick told me, because anything less than that can still allow light to get through allowing seed germination.

Plantings are done with smaller plants, no more than quart size, and most of the soil is knocked off before a hole is gently made in the gravel. Roots work their way down to the soil layer below, but until that happens the newly planted area needs to be watered frequently.

Plants that have low fertility needs work best for this type of garden, which includes native American prairie plants.

Building a gravel garden is no small feat when you consider removing soil to reach a specific level if that’s required, moving many tons of stone, constructing an edge to keep all that gravel contained as well as the laborious planting and initial tending.

But after that you are left with a drought-resistant garden that should almost never need watering and fertilizing and will be inhospitable to weeds. The main job will be an annual cut back in which all foliage must be removed so as to not create a nice home for a weed seed to germinate.

The end result is a garden that is as lush and interesting as any other perennial garden, except its owners look much more rested.

OK, I made up that last part, but anyone with an almost no-maintenance garden is probably far more likely to be spotted sitting in it rather than bending over it.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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